3 in 4 Americans feel that mental health takes a back seat to physical health

60% of Americans give a poor or failing grade to how mental health is treated.

May 1, 2024, 6:00 AM

Even though one in five Americans lives with a mental illness, many feel it is not adequately addressed, with a new survey from West Health and Gallup suggesting that three in four Americans believe mental health conditions are not identified and treated in the same way as physical health conditions.

Roughly 60% of Americans give a poor or failing grade to how mental health conditions are treated, according to the survey.

“The magnitude [of the problem] really surprised me,” said Tim Lash, President of West Health. He states that the U.S. is not just underperforming -- it is failing on a systemic level and in terms of the number of people with unmet needs.

The survey shows the impact of mental health challenges is significant with 51% of people said they experienced depression, anxiety, or another mental health condition in the past year.

Even more concerning, 22% of them said their mental health was so poor it interfered with normal activities like going to work or taking care of their household.

Stigma remains a significant barrier to care with seven in 10 Americans believing that society views people with mental health conditions negatively, the survey finds.

“It’s very difficult for patients to bring up mental health issues,” says Dr. Vidush Athyal, a family medicine physician at Kaiser Permanente in San Diego.

"The onus should probably be on the physician to really be attuned to picking up signs," said Athyal, emphasizing the importance of healthcare providers proactively incorporating mental health during routine patient visits.

While mental health stigma persists, experts hope increased dialogue will drive change.

A jogger runs past a meadow with blooming flowers in Ludwigsburg, southern Germany, on April 8, 2024. (Photo by THOMAS KIENZLE / AFP) (Photo by THOMAS KIENZLE/AFP /AFP via Getty Images)
Thomas Kienzle/AFP /AFP via Getty Images

"Hopefully, as our society becomes more comfortable talking about mental health, patients will feel more able to bring it up with their doctors," Athyal said. "You really shouldn't be holding too much back from your physician."

He also emphasizes that mental health challenges often manifest as physical symptoms.

“Many of the symptoms we encounter in primary care have an underlying psychosocial component, whether it’s migraines, back pain or palpitations. We think a patient may be having a heart attack, and then we end up running all the tests and everything’s normal. And then somebody finally attempts to dig a little bit deeper,” Athyal said, potentially revealing “a stressful event in the patient’s life that triggered this [response].”

Experts say the survey underscores that mental health shouldn't be an afterthought in American healthcare. Mental health professionals say that mental health is as important as physical health — the two are inextricably linked.

“There’s a long way to go,” said Lash, “but I see hope. We need societal acceptance of mental health as a core part of overall health, and achieving parity is crucial.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide - free, confidential help is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Call or text the national lifeline at 988.

Ruchi Rachmale, MD MPH is Chief Resident at UT Tyler School of Medicine's Preventive Medicine Residency Program in Tyler, Texas, and a member of the ABC Medical News Unit.

Pareena Kaur, MD MPH is a Family Medicine Resident at Kaiser Permanente in San Diego, California, and a member of the ABC Medical News Unit.

Dr. Jade Cobern contributed to this report.

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